More than 200 years ago Marie Shelley published her novel “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” which told the tale of a scientist playing God and the nasty consequences that ensued. The story became a literary success which captured the imagination of generations and moved into the realms of theater and then film and television almost as soon as these were invented. It was in the 1931 film directed by James Whale (in which the master of horror Boris Karloff played the monster) that the current view of what the monster looks like was cemented in popular culture. Since then, all visual references to the Frankenstein monster have those emblematic electrode bolts sticking out of the sides of his neck.
It was also in this movie that the actor Colin Clive embodied in popular culture the image of the mad scientist with his deranged scream of, “It’s alive!”.
It is interesting that most people associate the name Frankenstein with the monster, even though the monster never had a name. Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who created it: Victor Frankenstein. It is also interesting that Frankenstein’s creation is considered to be the monster when reality is a bit more complex. This is described in a clever joke that differentiates knowledge from wisdom.
Knowledge is understanding that Frankenstein is not the monster.
Wisdom is understanding that Frankenstein is the monster.
But one of most remarkable aspects of Frankenstein as a cultural phenomenon is how we have ended up using not only the full name but also the word “Franken” as a prefix. Anything preceded by the prefix “Franken” can mean several things such as something monstrous or deformed, or something made out of many parts, or something dead or dormant which has been reanimated, or a created entity that is unusual in some real or imagined negative way or that turns on its creator. I will go over some examples in this post.
In the 1980s, the CIA supported and trained Islamic rebels (the mujahedin) fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan including Osama Bin Laden. The late president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, warned President George H. W. Bush that he was creating a Frankenstein. And sure enough, after the rebels defeated the Soviets, they turned on the US. with ever increasing acts of terrorism, culminating with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon.
The large hurricane that wreaked havoc upon the East Coast of the United States in 2012 killing 280 people and causing 65 billion dollars in damage, Hurricane Sandy, was dubbed a “Frankenstorm”.
In the cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants, there is a 2002 episode in which SpongeBob creates a doodle bearing his likeness that acquires a life of its own and runs amok causing all sort of mischief. The name of the episode is, of course, “Frankendoodle.”
When my daughter was in middle school, she brought home a project from her ceramics class. It was a strange dark green shape with two knobs sticking out at right angles and what appeared to be stiches on its surface. I asked her what it was and she replied, “It’s a Frankenapple!”
In the 1990s, several dog breeders began crossing purebred dogs and creating new breeds (for example crossing a poodle with a Labrador will yield a labradoodle). These new dog breeds were called “designer dogs” and unleashed a craze to buy these expensive canines which were dubbed Frankendogs by those people scandalized with the practice.
In 2002 the invasive Asian snakehead fish made the news when several of them were found in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. Since then, the snakehead has become established wreaking havoc in the ecosystem of the Potomac River watershed. Its voracity, resilience, and ugliness have earned it the name of “Frankenfish”. Hollywood decided to commemorate this event by releasing a movie with an eponymous title.
The punk rock band The Dead Kennedys put out a record in 1985 called “Frankenchrist.” Inside the record cover they ill-fatedly included a poster by artist Hans Rudolf Giger entitled “Penis Landscape.” In a true Frankenstein-like fashion the resulting obscenity trial nearly drove the band’s record label out of business.
In 2012, a teacher wrote an article about an unsuccessful attempt to conduct a reading class employing e-books. The title of her article? Frankenbook.
In 2015 a large 30,000-year-old virus was discovered in Siberia, and researchers planned to revive this pathogen which was dubbed a “Frankenvirus”.
In 2012, filmmaker extraordinaire Tim Burton brought to the screen a story about a boy named “Victor” who brings his dog “Sparky” back to life with a lot of unintended consequences. The name of the movie? Frankenweenie!
The folks at the Urban Dictionary define Frankenjob as “a job consisting of a variety of different, often largely unrelated, tasks and duties, often resulting from corporate downsizing, restructuring or layoffs that cause many people's jobs to be combined into one.” They give the following example: After all those layoffs, management gave Fred so many different people's work, he's got a real Frankenjob now.
Environmentalist and consumer advocacy groups often refer to genetically modified foods as Frankenfoods and to genetically modified crops as Frankencrops. Related to this, a rumor got started in 2000 that involved the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants. When the franchise began calling itself “KFC” to reflect that it offered a wider variety of food choices, the rumor originated that they did this because they were not serving chicken anymore in their restaurants but a genetically modified organism that they could not legally call chicken. So what were they rumored to be serving? Frankenchicken!
In a 1990 film a medical school dropout endeavors to bring back to life his dead girlfriend using parts obtained from dead New York prostitutes. The result? Frankenhooker!
The examples above are some of the many uses of the frankenprefix. Have you heard about a particular use that I have not listed here? Please leave a comment and let me know.
The photograph of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster from Universal Studios is in the public domain.